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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

John Finlay's ‘Trip to the Bush’

John Finlay's ‘Trip to the Bush’

When studying a past community it is always exciting to find a report from an informed and intelligent outside visitor. We are fortunate to have one such for the Kaupokonui bush community of the 1880s. He is John Finlay (c. 1855-c. 1928), who grew up in County Wicklow, Ireland, on his father's farm, which had been in the family for over 200 years. Emigrating to New Zealand in 1871 he farmed for 12 years near Timaru, being active in local affairs and contributing frequently to the newspapers. In 1881 he sold out and took a trip to California and Britain. Returning in 1882 he spent a year or two as agricultural correspondent of the Timaru Herald, visiting farms throughout Canterbury and Otago. In 1885 he moved to Taranaki, took an open-country farm south of Hawera, and promptly became the Star's Manutahi ‘Our Own’. It was thus as an experienced colonist, agriculturalist and newspaper reporter that he reported in the Star of 27 October 1886 on his first real contact with bush life:

It is a good many years since I landed in New Zealand, and yet in the interval I have never until the occasion I am now writing of, spent a night in the bush. I do not mean to say I never spent a night in the wild uninhabited part of our colony. Far from it. I have spent months at a time camped out in what is known in South Canterbury and other portions of New Zealand as the bush, but in reality it was nothing more than rolling prairie covered with tussock and cabbage trees. Very little firewood of any description could be found; page 79 what little there was being of a very indifferent nature. In fact, firewood was a very important item in our weekly board bill. I have paid and received as much as £4 per cord for black pine firewood, but then it must be borne in mind that it had to be carted between 40 and 50 miles. On this coast bush settlers would be only too glad to have it carted or burned off their sections.

Wishing to see the primeval forest and how it was falling before the axe of our pioneer settlers, I resolved to do so when the first opportunity presented itself. Not knowing many bush settlers, I thought of an old acquaintance whose address I knew to be Skeet Road, but the location of the aforesaid road was a mystery. ‘Somewhere in the bush near Mount Egmont’—such is my impression. However, on Saturday, October 16th, I happened to be in the vicinity of Okaiawa, and thought, now here is the chance of carrying out my long-cherished wish. But where did my friend live? was the next question that presented itself. Meeting Mr W.A. Arnold, a bush settler, I intimated to him my proposed undertaking, for to me it was such. This gentleman assured me he would see me conducted to the end of my destination. Just the very thing I wanted. My new found guide and I adjourned to the local store and post-office: he to get his EGMONT STAR; I to lay in an abundant supply of the fragrant weed, for I was candidly assured bush settlers were unable to indulge in such luxuries, and if I ran short it would be a matter of impossibility to buy or borrow when once in there. Well, I am very happy to say I was misinformed, for during my short stay in the bush, I found all in a good and prosperous position. Certainly they have up-hill work to clear the bush and get it sown down to grass. When that is accomplished, then they can smoke the pipe of peace and ease, watching their stock increasing and fattening.

But I am slightly digressing, or, rather, running before my narrative. Leaving Okaiawa and heading towards the standing timber, we soon found ourselves ‘in the bush.’ We were on the Ahipipihi road. I hope I have spelled it right. [No, you haven't, but never mind.—ED.] The first time I saw it in print I nearly screwed my mouth out of shape, trying to pronounce it. The nearest approach to the sound is hi pipi. Night coming on fast, it being about seven o'clock in the evening, we pushed on. A smart canter of a few miles over a level and partially metalled road, and we were at the residence of Mr. Arnold. On the verandah Mrs. A. stood, anxiously expecting her lord and master, who had been detained longer than he expected, breaking in a young horse.

Our ablutions being hastily performed, we soon found ourselves in the kitchen, where half-burned rata logs on the fire-place threw out a strong but to us a pleasant heat: while the table was covered with steaming and appetising viands, to which were done ample justice. From the ceiling and around the walls hung, to farmers and settlers, the most profitable pictures— huge sides of bacon and ham. Not wishing to start on my trip till the moon should show her silvery face, I had an hour or more yet to wait, that luminary not making her appearance till a little after nine o'clock. The page 80 STAR'S contents were eagerly scanned, and the principal items discussed, or, at least, the ones most dear to bush settlers—viz., butter, beef, and fungus; the latter making a considerable addition to the bush settler's yearly income. As the evening was advancing, I began to fear my friend, with whom I was going to spend the night, would have retired unless I hurried on. Mr. A's eldest boy was soon on horse-back, and evidently appeared to enjoy the privilege of acting as my guide.

As we walked, or cantered where we could, my valuable companion gave me all and more information than I required. Passing a house or section I would be informed who lived there, the number of stock, acreage, etc. Presently we came to Te Ngutu-o-te-Manu reserve, which is fenced in, there being a wooden cross erected where Major Von Tempsky was supposed to be killed…. I jogged quietly along, musing over the past, and taking no notice of the numerous questions of my guide, only occasionally looking askant at the rising moon, which showed the dead ratas in all their blackness, as silent sentinels of the forest's former greatness.

Presently my hack went full tilt into the Kapuni river. Whether my legs were too long, my steed low, or the water high I cannot say, but a portion of the cold liquid finding its way into my boots soon brought my wandering mind back to things substantive. With a plunge and some splashing we soon managed to make out on the other side. On rising a slight grade we came to the residence of Mr Watkins. One section more and I am at my proposed journey's end. A few more mud holes to be negotiated—of which there are plenty—and I am safely landed at the large gate leading into the residence of Mr. John Bentley, and here I parted with my little guide, who quickly cantered to his home. Wishing to let the inmates know that a stranger is about, I heralded my own approach by singing out ‘ship ahoy’. This, as I afterwards learned, nearly sent Mrs. B. into hysterics, for she requested her dear John to bolt the door and draw the blinds closer, so that no intrusive person might peer through or come in.

Working my way round to the back yard, I presently saw a close-cropped head with mutton chop whiskers and large moustache come through the kitchen door. ‘Who comes there?’ was the query. ‘Why,’ he exclaimed, ‘it's the Manutahi correspondent to the STAR! What on earth brings you here at this untimely hour of the night? You surely have not left your lively little township to seek news in this dull and monotonous out of the way place?’ Having assured him such formed part of my object in view and having secured my nag in the calf park—be it known there are parks in the bush as well as the open—we soon found our way inside. As the good folk were to retire for the night, the fire was raked, for in the bush the fire is never allowed to go out. Mrs B soon had the ghreen shaugh (red embers) pulled to the front, and several large logs put on, of which there is an abundant supply close to the back door. Now, an American likes to feel the heat; he, therefore bottles up the fire in a stove. An Englishman feels happy if he can see a fire; he is to all intents and purposes content. But in this case we both saw and felt page 81 this pleasant fire, the night being very chilly; in fact, there was a slight frost. It is related in Napoleon Bonaparte's memoirs that after his retreat from Russia and while basking himself before a fire in his own sitting room in Paris, that he exclaimed, ‘Ah, this is better than Moscow!’ Well, I considered it much more conducive to my comfort to sit there watching the fire glow than be spluttering through the mud and the Kapuni river.

Here we sat chatting till the wee small hours—beyant the twal. Mr. B. is breaking in a number of young cattle to the bail, and during the previous day had lassoed a calf of eight or nine days of age, and had it tied in his back yard. At about 2. a.m. on Sunday morning, its mother found out her progeny's whereabouts, and the noise made by these brutes caused me to think that old Egmont had burst forth, and let some of her imps loose. Mine host, wishing to abate the nuisance, tied this young bovine to a stout post; then pushing it through a wicketgate, not daring to venture to the stockyard, decidedly declining an interview with the mother's horns. Even this precaution would not permit Morpheus to soothe the writer, as the mopawks made night hideous with their cries. At 5.10 a.m. mine host was about, his time registering 7 a.m.—not a bad margin between bush and telegraph time. No sooner had Mr. B. entered his backyard than he noticed his calfship nimbly hopping over logs led by its gallant mother, who, during the night, had eaten the rope through, thus liberating her offspring from durance vile. During the day, three men failed to recapture that incarnate imp.

Now a word about Mr. Bentley may not be out of place. Born in Banbury, Yorkshire, England (his father being an extensive weaver, employing a considerable staff of hands, the subject of this sketch being clerk in his father's office and this work not agreeing with him), he came out to New Zealand with his pockets well-filled with the almighty dollar, and, in the company with another young man, Mr. H.W. Davy, bought a good tract of country at Kaponga. Mr. Davy now represents that district on the Waimate Road Board. Mr Bentley, considering the quality of the land in that district not all he desired, sold his portion to his partner, and came down to the Skeet road, where he bought his present farm. About that time the land fever was on, and sections there were selling up to £14 percent. Mr. B. has his section nearly all felled, ring fenced, subdivided into five paddocks, comfortable dwelling house, outhouses, stockyard and shed, and half an acre of garden grubbed. Yet, if placed in the market, he assured me, he could not get near the figure he gave for it. The Government reducing their land 100 per cent has caused a fearful depreciation all round in bush farms. Mr. Bentley is going in dairy farming, and as a nucleus has about a dozen cows in profit. He has a supply of timber stacked on the ground waiting the carpenters' arrival to erect a dairy. When the Manaia factory starts operations he is thinking of sending his milk there. Sixteen months ago he added the spare rib, and is now blessed with a little olive branch, which is its mother's pride and father's joy.

During the day, in company with Mr. Bentley, I trudged through a number of sections, over stumps and logs; my companion, being used to the page 82 bush, hopped about with the greatest of ease, while in a very short time I was dead beat. Not wishing to let him know my shortcomings, I used occasionally to stop and admire some felled giant of the forest, but in reality it was to get breathing time. In my scramblings I was pleasantly surprised to see such luxuriant growth of grass, logs nearly covered, while the stock, even at this season of the year, was almost rolling fat. In the afternoon a number of settlers, male and female, called on mine host, horseback being their mode of conveyance; vehicles are out of question on these muddy roads in winter time. As the company represented Kaponga, Manaia, and Okaiawa, your humble servant, being an outsider, could not very well join in the conversation. The gentlemen talked of bushfelling, grass, beef, and fungus; while the ladies were dead on butter, cheese, and children.

By the way, one of the ladies present said her boys' gathering of fungus last season came to within a few shillings of £30. So instead of children being a drag on a man in the bush they are a very great help. In 1882 the writer was travelling by rail from Invercargill to Kingston, and in the same carriage with him was a settler who appeared to be well known along the line, for at the various stations he was greeted with—‘Guid morning, Jock; hoo are rabbeet-skins selling below?’ meaning in Invercargill, while in and around Kingston the settlers' first greetings were about rabbits or their skins, wife and families being only of second consideration. In the Kaupokonui district fungus is the staple item. Recently the following occurred:—First Settler: ‘How are things in the city?’ Second Settler, just returned from Hawera: ‘Oh, very dull; fungus is down 1d and butter only 8d to 7d per pound.’ They part, each looking to see if his boots required typing, and mentally calculating their respective loss through the recent fall of both staple articles.

For general information I found settlers on the whole well posted up, the STAR being their multum in parvo of this world's news. If perseverance, working long hours, and economy are stepping stones to competency, surely our bush settlers ought to achieve that coveted position—early to rise, hewing, hacking and burning all day long. The major portion of sections are plainly showing the effect of this continuous struggle. A good burn is always looked forward to, and if such cannot be obtained they are content. There is a better supply of dead wood lying about for the growth of fungus. Some look forward to the not very distant date when the plough will be able to do its work. Then the settler may view his fields of golden-eared wheat and well stocked paddocks, and after a hard day's toil retire under his verandah and smoke his pipe in peace, taking a retrospective view of the past and many hard years of uphill work he had had to accomplish this long-wished-for repose. That is providing the heat of summer and the rains of winter have no given him lumbago, sciatica, or rheumatism, or some morning he may wake up and find his limbs not acting as heretofore. A few days illness and he joins the great majority. Another takes his place, and he is soon forgotten in the bustle of this world's affairs.

page 83
Alice Bentley née Swadling, photographed in Reading prior to emigrating in 1883

Alice Bentley née Swadling, photographed in Reading prior to emigrating in 1883

For public consumption John Finlay presented his visit to the Bentley home as the result of a spur of the moment decision to look up an old acquaintance to whom his arrival was a complete surprise. In fact Finlay's and Bentley's wives were sisters, both couples having married the previous year. Emma Swadling had married Finlay and Alice Swadling had married Bentley, and they were sisters of Kaponga pioneer settler William Swadling. In 1883 he was followed to New Zealand by a family party consisting of his mother, 55-year-old housekeeper Elizabeth Swadling, his younger brother Frederick, and his sisters 27-year-old Emma and 21-year-old Alice, both housemaids. As we have seen from Finlay's account, John Bentley was an immigrant from Yorkshire who had gone into partnership with Henry Davy in land at Kaponga. Crown land grants date their first Kaponga purchase at 11 November 1882, so they will have known William Swadling from the settlement's founding days.

What we are dealing with here it seems is a planned weekend family visit with an associated community get-together. The likely scenario is that Finlay arranged with the Star to do this article, discussed the trip with the Bentleys either in person or by letter, and reached an agreement that if page 84 weather and circumstances were right he would travel on from a Saturday market-day visit to Hawera on 16 October. A get-together of bush friends of the Bentleys could then have been tentatively arranged for the Sunday afternoon, the moon being right for them to make an evening journey home. A strong contingent could be expected from Kaponga, including Alice's brother William Swadling and John's old mate Henry Davy who, if he had already begun storekeeping, would have been well placed to put the word around. The following year Henry married Agnes Hutchinson, whose family home was just along Skeet Road from the Bentleys, so the Hutchinson family were probably at the gathering.6

Finlay's report illustrates various facets of Kaupokonui bush life. As a grateful guest he responded with a laudatory account of bush life while not glossing too much over its privations. The primitive state of the roads was clear. He found Ahipaipa Road, the main access route to the block, only partially metalled. Of mud holes he noted that ‘there were plenty’. He summed up his moonlight ride as ‘spluttering through the mud and the Kapuni river’. Next day the visitors all came on horseback because ‘vehicles are out of question on these muddy roads in winter time’. He seemed intrigued with the fungus trade, which he likened to the rabbit skin industry he had seen in the south. He returned repeatedly to the delights of the ample log fires in the settlers' kitchens. At W.A. Arnold's he showed us a more developed farm homestead with its ‘huge sides of bacon and ham’ hanging from ceiling and walls, indicating an established dairy herd and a household with well-developed subsistence skills. At Bentley's he had some more primitive experiences: the manner of his arrival bringing out Alice Bentley's insecurity in her new environment; the nocturnal blaring arising from the first steps towards a dairy herd; the very early awakening due to Bentley's ‘bush time’ being two hours ahead of ‘telegraph time’; the timber for the dairy stacked awaiting the carpenters; the tiring exertion of scrambling over the logs and stumps of the clearing.

As a newcomer to the bush, Finlay saw rather more than he understood. The evidence is there that these folk were being edged by local realities firmly towards a dairying future, but Finlay's closing picture of future fulfilment was of the settler smoking his pipe under his verandah looking out over his fields of golden-eared wheat. There was more to Bentley's bush career than is brought out in Finlay's sketch. A likely reading of it is that Bentley and Davy first saw their future as evolving from their buying into the ground floor of the new bush township of Kaponga. With the delay in the appearance of the township, Davy opted for toughing it out, while Bentley decided on a new strategy. Accepting the case for dairying and its move to the factory system, he decided that Kaponga was as yet too remote for the industry and so shifted to Skeet Road in the hope that initiatives for a factory at nearby Manaia would come to fruition. As a fall-back position he was erecting his own dairy. Whether his young bride already had dairying skills, or whether she was a beginner out to learn from her Sunday afternoon page 85 lady visitors ‘dead on butter, cheese, and children’ we are not told.

Throughout Finlay's report there are many hints of the teamwork of yeoman life, and of the importance of the particular skills that women as well as men brought to wresting a livelihood from their challenging environment. Mrs Arnold produced both a table ‘covered with steaming and appetising viands' and the provision for the future months that hung from her walls and ceilings; Mrs Bentley was the guardian of the fire that ‘is never allowed to go out’. There are indications also of the contributions the children were making. Finlay's ‘little guide’ on his moonlight ride took the task in his stride, proving a ‘valuable companion’ who could provide ‘all and more information than I required’ and making nothing of having to ride the lonely journey back alone. On the Sunday afternoon Finlay heard of one family's boys making the valuable contribution of nearly £30 to its budget from the season's fungus gathering. There are various indications of the men's work: Arnold had been breaking in a young horse, Bentley was ‘breaking in a young cattle to the bail’; and he had grubbed half an acre of garden; bush settler life is described as ‘hewing, hacking and burning all day long’; bush settler talk was of ‘bushfelling, grass, beef, and fungus’.

Finlay included several boosts for the Star, but one judges that most settlers would have considered them well deserved. It was, of course, his connection with the press that made him something of a drawcard for the Bentleys' Sunday afternoon gathering.